Memories of a Longleaf Pine
'In "pine barrens" most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny spaces between full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long wand-like solidago, saw palmettos, etc., covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms.'
--John Muir (An excerpt from his 1867 journal as he walked across Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia.)
The pines are a central part of a Southerner's life. In northern Florida, as well as other parts of the South, pines are everywhere. In fact, we have grown accustomed to them. I remember the pine trees with fondness. Where I grew up, there are distinctive woodland habitats. I enjoyed roaming among them all.
Gazing through the understory of the Chipola River Habitat.
Walking in the Sandhills
I spent many days walking and playing among the sandhill region of northwest Florida as a child. But did you know that the sandhills are unique in themselves? They are upland woods on gently rolling terrain. The sandhills are similar to a savanna habitat with an overstory of longleaf pines. It is not a heavy canopy of trees that covers the upland woods, but an open overstory. The sandhill habitat is distinguished by the longleaf pines, grassy groundcover and turkey oaks throughout. It has been many years since I walked the sandhills, but I close my eyes and imagine the feel of that soft and sometimes pokey forest floor beneath my bare soles. I see the turkey oaks with their crooked branches and polished leaves. I glance at the upright trunk of a sand post oak, Quercus margarettae and smile at its perfection. Other names for the sand post oak include dwarf post oak and scrubby post oak. I see the small, proud bluejack oak, Quercus incana with its lovely blue-hued leaves. I stop to admire the perfect structure of the persimmon tree. It might have webworms among its branches, but that does not take away from the beauty of the tree. I hear the bob-white call to his mate. The pine warblers and kestrels are busy among the pines as well. There are bluebirds, nuthatches, and red-bellied woodpeckers all around. I stand very still in hopes of seeing an indigo snake. And none is more beautiful than he! A gopher tortoise moves with measured certainty to its hole. I hear the echoes of the mothers from long ago warning their children about the dangers of gopher holes. "Keep away from them gopher holes, ya hear now! Rattlers live in there." I cannot say if rattlesnakes live in gopher holes. I never dared to ask one if they do. As I walk I glance up now and again in search of fox squirrels. They like to lob pinecones at passersby as they chatter and dash along their squirrel highways. My eyes are open now, but my heart remembers, the Florida of my childhood.
A Stroll through the Pines
Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris 
- The major difference between longleaf pines and other southern pines are the dark green, glossy, needles which are up to fifteen inches long. And the six to ten inch long cones. The longleaf pine is the only pine tree with these characteristics.
- Other names for the longleaf pine are long needle, long straw, southern yellow, hard, pitch and Georgia pine.
- When it is young, the longleaf pine can grow five feet high in one year. It has a tap root which quickly reaches to a depth of up to ten feet. The longleaf pine can live up to four hundred years and reach a height of one hundred-twenty feet.
- The wood of longleaf pines is dense and strong. It is also resistant to rot and decay
- The natural range of longleaf pine is from southeastern Virginia to east Texas.
There was a large stand of longleaf pines near our home in Florida. I often walked there. I enjoyed listening to the pines as the breeze rustled through them. As a child my silly imagination would run wild on those walks. I imagined all manner of creepy critters hiding behind the shrubby undergrowth. In truth, there were probably whitetail deer, a fox or two, and the ever present fox squirrel lurking among the wild Florida 'bush'. Those were peaceful, secure times for me. I recall the sound of the pines, the scent of the pines and their beauty with fondness.
But nearer to home there was one pine in particular that I favored. I think of it now , and I am struck with delight. It was a mature longleaf pine. And it stood alone at the edge of our property. It was the bastion of my childhood. When I was sad, I sat beneath it. And the whisper of its branches soothed my troubled heart. When I was lonely, I played with my dogs and cats in its dappled shade. When I was happy, I walked among the upland woods always bringing my walk to a close at that friendly pine. And the sweet piney scent it emitted was nectar to my Florida Cracker soul. That pine still stands today. I could point it out to you had we the pleasure of strolling together in the pines. And I wonder do children play at the base of that pine as I did so long ago? I hope so. It is a testament to the value of a tree when generations of children play at its base.
Dipping and Scrapping Pine Trees for Turpentine
I recall the stories of my grandfather who was a 'turpentiner' back in the early twenties as a nine-year-old boy. He went to school for half of the day and 'terpentined' the second half of the day. His particular job was to gather the clay pots with the gum in them. The pots were hung on metal strips which were inserted just below the 'cat face' to drain the gum from the longleaf pine. Work at such a young age was a sad reality for many Floridians in those days. Turpentine was collected and distilled into spirits of turpentine and rosin. The turpentine and rosin were then used in various products.
My grandfather collected turpentine from the longleaf pines into his adulthood. Not only did he collect the turpentine by dipping and scraping the trees, he also gathered 'fat stumps' to burn and collect the turpentine in trays as it 'cooked' from the stumps.
Fat lighter is wood from a longleaf pine that has died often from a lightning strike. The center of these dead trees is filled with sap which keeps them from rotting. Instead they harden off and are like pure fuel. Growing up we used to collect fat lighter for starting the fires in our wood stoves. (Yes, it gets cold enough in northwest Florida for wood stove fires.) Often the dead longleaf pine remains standing. And the aromatic pine aroma of a piece of fat lighter is wonderful.
Once while collecting fat lighter my uncle leaned over to pick up a fine piece of lighter and nearly grabbed a rattlesnake instead. That snake's head filled a quart-sized Mason jar. We still giggle about how white my uncle's face turned at the sight of that rattlesnake. So beware if you are going to collect fat lighter. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. They like to hang out among both living and dead pines.
Where once stood ninety million acres of longleaf pine there is now only three million acres of the longleaf pine ecosystem left. Perhaps it is time to take a second look at the longleaf pine and its benefits. At the very least discover the joy of strolling through a stand of longleaf pines. You will truly come to appreciate the variety of plants that grow among them.
I often think of the walks I took through the whispering pines and upland woods of Northwest Florida. I really miss those sandy, white, pig-trail roads and piney woods!
Deep South Vernacular Defined
Turpentiner: Someone that collects the gum of pine trees.
Turpentined: The actual act of collecting gum from pine trees.
Cat face: A pattern cut into the pine where the gum will run out.
Fat stumps: A dead longleaf pine tree stump that has aged to pure fuel.
Cooking fat stumps: The process of burning the stump until the gum runs out into trays.
Piney Woods: An area of pine woods.
Florida Cracker: A Florida native of particular origin. The term has several possible origins; one theory is that it referred to the Georgia cowboys that traveled across the Florida border cracking their whips at the cattle in the 1800s.
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Photographs
My own Florida Photographs
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)